Student accounts are spying on you

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Senior Jacob Dirkx covers his laptop camera with a piece of tape. He doesn’t want anyone to access his camera when it is not on. He is concerned about his privacy— especially when he logs into his student account. 

Behind the schoolhouse gate, through the use of G Suite—a set of computer software applications including Google Classroom, Google Drive and student email accounts (through Outlook)—a student’s expectation of privacy is potentially lowered according to privacy experts. 

Kevin Crotchett, Director of Learning Technologies at Portland Public Schools, says that PPS cannot access a student’s history or G Suite documents. He notes that for students under 18, parents must first give consent to allow a student to create and use a school account.

Parents sign the enrollment papers, which include a statement about G Suite accounts. They are able to indicate that they do not want their student included on this form,” he states.

But parents and students don’t have much of a choice, according to Bill Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a data privacy researcher and an advocate who has worked with a number of school districts and education organizations. Opting out of the G Suite terms of service would leave students unable to complete and turn in homework.

“You don’t let a parent opt-out of using a notebook, so why should you be able to opt-out of using a specific software service the district has determined is essential to learning in their schools?” says Fitzgerald. 

Fitzgerald also says that while most parents believe that giving their consent means that they are able to exercise meaningful control over how their child’s information can be used, this is not always the case. 

“The reality is, parental consent is a binary object…  So what is commonly called parental consent is not consent in the sense that [parents] have control. It is to give consent to the vendor on what they say they are going to do,” he says. 

So what happens after a parent allows their child to use a G Suite account?

According to the G Suite Services Summary, Google specifies a list of covered services including Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Docs. When students use these covered services, Google claims they are unable to use their collected information to advertise. But students are still accessing non-covered services such as Youtube and Google Maps through their G Suite accounts. According to Fitzgerald, that can compromise a student’s privacy.

“Anytime the district is turning on [students’] Google Maps or Youtube… that’s actually not considered an education service by Google and opens the door to a whole new range of track,” Fitzgerald says.

No one knows exactly how much tracking is done, according to Fitzgerald. But he says that Google is an advertising company with the surface of a search engine. Fitzgerald is suspicious. “Their business model is predicated on compiling profiles and allowing marketers and advertisers to target based on those profiles,” he says.

Dirkx worries that the government will be able to access this data. 

“Google is a private company so they have little to no restrictions on what they can do with your data. I worry that in some situations Google could give this information to the government and therefore bypass restrictions we have placed on government data collection,” he says. 

Dirkx’s concerns for student privacy extend further than himself.

“The worst-case scenario would be if Google were to work with the government to out undocumented immigrants and turn them into the government,” he says. 

Fitzgerald is concerned that this surveillance will be normalized. 

“Think about the emotional environments that are set up in a learning system when a big part of that system is predicated on people in power constantly surveilling those with less power. That’s a messed up and unhealthy model for a relationship, he says. The worst-case scenario is that people think this is normal,” he said.

 

Google is a private company so they have little to no restrictions on what they can do with your data.